Showmanship the key for erratic Colombians

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The Independent Online
If the Football Association wanted a suitable substitute for Croatia after abandoning their ambitious plans to play the war-torn country, they could not have done better than choose Colombia, which suffered its own civil unrest at the turn of the century and is now waging war on drugs- related crime.

Ever since that bracelet allegedly went missing in a Bogota hotel jewellery shop 25 years ago, erroneously implicating the England captain Bobby Moore, it seems that footballers in Colombia have found themselves caught up in it all.

It reached a tragic climax during last year's World Cup finals, when Andreas Escobar, the Colombian defender, was shot dead after his own goal against the United States had apparently unwittingly foiled a major betting coup. And then just prior to this summer's Copa America, Arley Rodriguez, another Colombian international, was killed after resisting a robbery.

The poor form in that tournament of Faustino Asprilla, the brilliant Serie A striker and pounds 4m target of Leeds United, may have had something to do with a pending court case over the possession of illegal weapons. Pleading guilty at last Friday's trial, he was sentenced to one year's imprisonment, suspended on condition he reports to the Colombian Consulate in Milan every month for two years.

Colombia's performance in the Copa America, in which they finished third, went some way to restoring a reputation that was all but destroyed in the World Cup finals, where their 2-1 defeat by the United States plumbed depths all too familiar to Graham Taylor's England during their own Foxboro nadir 12 months earlier.

Only four of that side savoured a 4-1 revenge against the Americans in Uruguay this summer, and all but two of those are in a 17-man squad at Wembley tonight. Amply upstaging Paul Gascoigne's haircut - whatever its colour - will be the unmistakable Carlos Valderrama, who proved this summer that, at 33, his ability is still as copious as his locks. His finesse, however, was unmatched by the team's finishing, even if Fredy Rincon was his usual exuberant self.

Another old flamboyant favourite, Rene Higuita, has returned to a discredited defence after failing to appear in the US finals, and judging by the Copa America is as splendidly erratic as ever, crucially saving a penalty in a shoot-out against Paraguay and then punching the ball into his own net straight from a corner against Brazil.

Indiscipline when marking will not have escaped Venables' eye. It remains to be seen, however, whether this England, even at home, can exact upon them the same degree of punishment as Moore's men did when winning 4-0 all those years ago. A step up from the 1-1 draw with the South Americans at Wembley in 1988 would suffice.

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